Kickshaw’s ‘Or,’ is the write stuff
ANN ARBOR—All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. –Virginia Woolf
According to Virginia Woolf, all women owe a debt to Aphra Behn, the first female professional playwright. So it is especially rich that Liz Duffy Adams begins her play Or, with Aphra in debtor’s prison, furiously writing letters begging Charles II to pay the debts she incurred while a spy in his service during the Puritan Interregnum.
The curiously titled Or, (comma intended) is the latest offering from Kickshaw, Ann Arbor’s brave young pop-up professional theater. A deliciously ribald neo-Restoration comedy, Or, boldly proclaims with its very title that it refuses to commit to a single theme – as actor Vanessa Sawson tells us during the prologue (while deftly putting on her costume), the play “ricochets between a dense array of seeming opposites” and with witty wordplay explores the duality of “Spy or poetess, actress or whore/Male or female, or both.”
The sparkling blank verse prologue, an homage to similar prologues of the period, alerts us that we are in for a 90-minute romp both amorous and intellectual (while cleverly including such practical anachronism as fire exit locations and cell phone reminders). Adams weaves together the stories of three luminaries of the golden era of Restoration drama – Behn, the playboy monarch Charles II, and the famed comic actress, Nell Gwynne – into a lighthearted yet thought-provoking evening of theater, embellished with ample historic details and layered with contemporary cultural references.
Following the prologue and the brief scene in debtor’s prison, the remainder of the play’s action occurs one night in Aphra’s small London apartment, where she furiously tries to complete a script for The Duke’s Company (the first Restoration era theater, chartered by Charles II). Over the course of the evening Aphra’s efforts are thwarted by a barrage of demanding visitors played by two talented and versatile actors, Daniel A. Helmer and Mary Dilworth.
Helmer is a playful and good-humored Charles II, believable even in his ridiculously comic wig. To his credit, lusty Charles appreciates Aphra as much for her intellect as for her physical charm, and respects Aphra’s “everything but PIV sex” rule. From a practical standpoint Aphra wants to avoid pregnancy, but she also has a clear vision of where she is headed: “I am not a professional mistress. I have greater ambitions.” Charles, who re-opened the theaters after they had been banned for 18 years by the Puritans, recognizes and supports her desire to be “a new Sappho for the modern stage,” yet he also gently mocks her for her lofty dream: “Odd’s fish, you’re ambitious!” Helmer also briefly plays a foulmouthed jailer who does not appreciate rhyming, and double-agent and former paramour of Aphra’s, William Scott.
But it is the trio of eccentric visitors played by Mary Dilworth that really steal the show. Dilworth fully inhabits the larger-than-life role of Nell Gwynne, a self-proclaimed “orange girl made good” who grew up in a brothel and rose to be a prominent mistress of Charles II and the most celebrated actress of her day. Dilworth brings to the part an unrestrained, youthful joy in the possibilities of the era. Nell urges Aphra to “tune in and turn on,” a reference that draws parallels between the 1960’s counterculture and the new Restoration mores that allowed women to act on the English stage for the first time. I really wanted to believe her when she effused that “we can love who we want, girls or boys… the world is changing.” But it is also Nell who makes the grim observation that “to be a woman is to be a whore.” This dichotomy – the possibility that women can aspire to anything they want, set against the reality that, in Aphra’s words, “freedom, especially for women, is only possible under an enlightened monarch” – is one of the threads woven throughout the script, threatening at any moment to unravel whatever small bit of autonomy the female characters have created for themselves.
Dilworth imbues her other roles with a similar infectious energy, nearly stopping the show with a non-stop manic monologue as the outrageously coiffed and bustled Mrs. Davenant (widow of the actual founder of the Duke’s Company, William Davenant). And, more subtly, in a winking fourth-wall moment as Aphra’s loyal servant Maria, tossing off the wry line “write me one of those clever servant parts and we’re even.”
But as these two actors come and go as various characters, alternately seducing the playwright and each other, slamming doors, escaping to the bedroom for a romp, and hiding in a chest (the focal point of several clever sight gags), it is the constant presence on stage of Vanessa Sawson as Aphra that gives the play gravitas. Sawson brings a sensual, earthy intelligence to the role of Aphra as she struggles with her conflicting desires to express both her sexual and artistic freedom. According to Aphra, “the greatest danger for a woman… is an all-consuming love for a man,” for that way lies not only the perils of pregnancy but a lack of autonomy that threatens her fullest artistic expression. Like Virginia Woolf, Aphra relishes in finally having a room of her own in which to create, and she will protect that at all costs.
It is a joy to watch Sawson’s expressive face in Kickshaw’s intimate space. In particular, during the scenes where Aphra sits at her writing desk, nuanced expressions flicker across her face as she is wholly enthralled with the writing process. Sawson’s classical training is also evident here, as she demonstrates mastery of challenging text that transitions fluidly between sections of verse and prose. Primarily in period language but punctuated with an occasional contemporary bon mot, Sawson and her colleagues, under the competent direction of veteran director Suzi Regan, do justice to Adams’ brilliant script.
And it is Aphra’s script that is the focal point of Adams’. Mrs. Davenant, while soliciting for Aphra’s first script, stipulates that she will not have
… one of those ‘Or’ titles, you know what I mean, one of those greedy, get it all in, the “something something or what you something” – I don’t care if the great man did. They take up half the poster and the typesetter charges by the word. Make up your mind and pick one, thank you!
Here Adams pokes fun at the then-fashionable alternate title structure immortalized by the “great man” with Twelfth Night, or What you Will and remaining popular throughout the ages (e.g. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, etc.). But although it is not named in the show, the title of the play Aphra is writing is in fact “one of those ‘Or’ titles”: The Young King, Or The Mistake.
Fortunately for us, though, Adams has given us an “Or” title in its purest sense, no “something something” about it. For it is in the lighthearted exploration of the spaces between the more obvious themes of artistic destiny and gender fluidity that deeper truths are revealed about the nature of freedom and the sacrifices we make for art.
Or, plays through March 4 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth